Genesis: NIVAC (John Walton)

Image result for john walton genesis

Walton, John.  Genesis NIVAC. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

John Walton begins the introduction not with dull academese about Genesis, but with creation and covenant.  The Babylonian and Egyptian gods (and its Freemason god today) could not be covenantal.

His intro is good and sane, but there are still some iffy parts. Against the fundamentalist he says there is an undeniable mythical element.  Against the liberal he rejects the attempt to reduce all of it to myth. I actually think the mythical content is…well….true. That stuff is real.  More on that later.

Genesis is structured around the toledoths (2:1; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1; 36:9; 37:2). And Genesis is Covenant History, with the covenant aimed for an election to revelation (Walton 37ff). Abram was elect partly because the knowledge of God had been lost (52). So, God reveals himself.  And he reveals himself through Covenant.

A question about methodology.  Walton has been accused of simply reading ANE back into the Bible.  This isn’t entirely accurate. There is no “Bible-equivalent” of ANE texts, nor is the ANE uniform.  Take creation: in Babylonian legends creation births the gods (or the gods birth creation). In some Egyptian accounts the “god” speaks creation into existence.  

Genesis 1:1-5

Resit refers to a duration of time, not a specific point (Walton 68).  Evidence for this is in Job 8:7, “which speaks of the early part of Job’s life.”

Regarding bara Walton argues that it refers, not to material creation, but to assigning functions and tasks (71).

Day 1

Walton argues that it is not the phycists’ light being created, but that ‘or refers to a period of time.  This makes sense since God separates the light from darkness (and you can’t draw a physical boundary and keep light on one side, darkness on the other).

Rather, God is creating time, which is the first of the functions he creates (79). Genesis 1 is operating on functional, rather than structural terms (83).  There is something to this, since it avoids some of the problems of “how is there light before the sun?” and the neutered “it’s all myth” approaches.

What did God do on Day 4?

We’ll spend some time here since this is largely why Walton is so controversial.  His larger argument is fairly sound: there is evidence that when “creation language” is used, it is not always in a structural sense.  For example:

  1. Job 9:9 shows that constellations are arrangements of objects and not structures.  ‘Sa can refer to acts like arranging (124).
  2. Isaiah 41:17-20. “Both verbs bara and asah are used to describe the establishment of functions.”
  3. Isaiah 45.  Both verbs are referring to nonmaterial objects.

So did God “make” the sun on the 4th day?  On Walton’s reading, no. God gave the lights a functional task

Image of God

Walton lists the three interpretative options: theological, grammatical, and conciliar.  The theological says the “us/our” language refers to the Trinity. The grammatical says it is a plural of majesty.  The conciliar says it refers to the divine council. The grammatical option is the easiest to eliminate, since there aren’t many (or any?) examples of the plural of majesty in Hebrew. The theological one won’t work, either.  It wouldn’t have made any sense to an OT Jew for the Father to be speaking to the Son and Spirit. Further, it has God the Father telling God the Son and God the Spirit what they are going to do, but how would this work, given that they all share the same mind?  Wouldn’t they already know?

The conciliar option has God telling the divine council what they are going to do, yet in the end God is the one doing it.  This fits the grammar and is attested elsewhere in the Hebrew bible. Someone might object that “We aren’t created in the image of angels?”  That misses the point on what the image of God really means? If it means a set of metaphysical properties like will, rationality, etc., then maybe we don’t share those with angels (then again, maybe we do).  But that’s not what the image is about.

Definition of the image of God: it is the capacity to be God’s vice-regents (131). “The image is a physical manifestation of divine (or royal) essence that bears the function of that which it represents; this gives the image-bearer the capacity to reflect the attributes of the one represented.”

Genesis 2

“Divine rest is the principal function of a temple, and a temple is always where a deity finds rest, so the cosmos is God’s temple” (147).  On another note, in this earlier volume Walton is quite hostile to theistic evolution (156).

How should we honor the Sabbath?  This is the big-time money question for Reformed folks.  And if you are a Covenanter, all of theology reduces to this moment.  Walton makes a number of wise comments: if you have to reduce Sabbath-keeping to a bunch of rules, you’ve missed the point.  Sabbath is the way we acknowledge God on his throne and as priest-kings, it is how we reflect the stability and equilibrium of rest (158).

Genesis 6

Walton rightly skewers the “Sethite” thesis about the “sons of God” in Genesis 6.  There is zero syntactical evidence for such a claim. Walton rejects the angelic thesis, but not for the usual reasons.  While he correctly notes that whenever the “sons of God” appear in Scripture (e.g., in Job), it means angelic beings. But he says the Bible doesn’t give us a large enough sample size, so we can’t use that evidence. Further, contra Enoch and Jude’s use of Enoch (sorry fundies), the angelic beings would have taken wives in marriage, which goes against Enoch’s usage of porneia.

Walton claims the “sons of god” are sort of like Gilgamesh, tyrant kings of old who took extra wives.  To be fair, Walton admits there is zero evidence in Scripture for his position but he notes, accurately, that it matches the Gilgamesh account.

There are several problems here.  (1) Gilgamesh was an apkallu, or maybe a son of an apkallu.  That supports the angelic thesis. So if Walton is correct, then he is thrust back upon the angelic thesis. (2) Precisely about what event in the OT does Jude allude to?  Genesis 6. Jude connects this account with the sexual sins of Sodom. Again, we are thrust back upon the angelic thesis.

The Flood

True to Walton’s methodology, he doesn’t argue for any specific extent of the flood.  He notes some problems in each view, lists the grammatical and syntactical options, and lets the reader decide. And the options aren’t simply universal vs. local.  Rather, they are a) global, b) known world, c) regional, d) local (322). There are some problems with the Universal Flood view:

  1. If the sea level rose for 150 days until it covered the tops of the mountains, and the sea level rose 16, 946 ft to the top of Ararat, then it was logically 16, 946ft across the earth.  This requires about 630 million cubic miles of additional water weighing 3,000,000,000,000,000,000 tons. Here is the problem: the oceans had to triple in volume in 150 days and then shrink quickly back to normal.  Where did the 630 million cubic miles of water go? There is no ocean to drain to because the oceans are already filled.

There are other logistical problems but they aren’t ultimately decisive.  What matters is the text. Didn’t the flood cover “all” the earth? As good Calvinists we know that all doesn’t always mean all (Dt 2.25).  True, but didn’t it cover the mountains? The text uses the Pual form of ksh, which suggests a variety of possibilities (325). Water can “cover” not simply by submerging but also by drenching.  If we tell someone “you are covered with water” during a storm, we just mean they are drenched.


The commentary is weighted towards the earlier chapters of Genesis.  That’s probably inevitable as that is where all the questions are. I don’t always agree with Walton’s conclusions, but his handling of the text and syntax is masterful.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s